On a wet and windy day on December 28, 1805, Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal that the Corps of Discovery had decided to set up a saltworks on the Pacific seacoast. He ordered “Jos. Fields, Bratten, Gibson to proceed to the Ocean at Some convenient place form a Camp and Commence makeing Salt with 5 of the largest Kittles, and Willard and Wiser to assist them in Carrying the Kittles to the Sea Coast.”
This was not the first time members of the Corps of Discovery had engaged in making salt. Though presumably they brought some salt along with their other supplies when they left St. Louis, the Captains were always on the lookout for good opportunities to make more. In June of 1804, William Clark noted that the Corps had “passed Saline Creek on the L. Side a large Salt Lick & Spring 9 me. up the Creek, one bushel of water will make 7 lb. of good Salt.” The next day, Clark wrote that “Capt. Lewis took four or five men & went to Some 〈Creeks〉 Licks or Springs of Salt water from two to four miles up the Creek on Rt. Side the water of those Springs are not Strong, Say from 4 to 600 Gs. of water for a Bushel of Salt.” The Corps buried some of their surplus salt along with other supplies in a cache on the Missouri River in June 1805, planning to dig it up on their return trip. By Christmas at Fort Clatsop in 1805, their supplies were completely exhausted.
In modern times, the processed food we eat is so laden with salt that it has actually become a problem. Excessive sodium intake is linked to a host of medical ills, ranging from obesity and renal disease to hypertension, heart attacks and strokes. But for the Corps of Discovery, a low-sodium diet was a real problem. Not getting enough salt can lead to low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, and digestive problems.
For the Captains, the issue foremost on their minds was the taste of their food. The diet at Fort Clatsop in the winter of 1805-1806 was monotonous at best, consisting mostly of elk meat—frequently spoiled—and fish acquired from the Clatsop Indians. On Christmas Day 1805, John Ordway noted glumly in his journal, “we have nothing to eat but poore Elk meat and no Salt to Season that with.” With the pickings slim, the Captains recognized that spicing up dinner would improve morale.
In addition to serving as a food flavoring, salt was important as a food preservative. The Corps had no way to refrigerate their food—hence the abundance of spoiled elk meat—and they relied on salt to cure surplus meat and preserve dried fish for eating later. Without salt, meat spoiled in a matter of days or even hours.
Fortunately, the men found an auspicious location for their saltworks, near present-day Seaside, Oregon, close to the lodges of some Killamuck Indians. The men reported that the local Indians were friendly and that the Killamucks “had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of a whale which perished on the coast.” As soon as they had secured enough meat to eat, the salt-makers built rock cairns and set to boiling seawater in the kettles they had brought. When the water had evaporated, they scraped the salt off the sides of the kettle. Clark noted on January 5, 1806 that the men had brought back a sample that was “excellent white & fine, but not So Strong as the rock Salt or that made in Kentucky.” Lewis waxed more rhapsodic, saying the salt was
a great treat to myself and most of the party, having not had any since the 20th ultmo.; I say most of the party, for my friend Capt. Clark declares it to be a mear matter of indifference with him whether he uses it or not; for myself I must confess I felt a considerable inconvenience from the want of it; the want of bread I consider as trivial provided, I get fat meat, for as to the species of meat I am not very particular, the flesh of the dog the horse and the wolf, having from habit become equally formiliar with any other, and I have learned to think that if the chord be sufficiently strong, which binds the soul and boddy together, it does not so much matter about the materials which compose it.
Unfortunately, working at the salt works proved to be tough duty. Game was scarcer than expected, and the saltmakers were sometimes reduced to bartering small trinkets and other merchandise to the Indians in return for whale meat and other game. Lewis and Clark had to send hunters to assist the saltmakers in securing enough fresh meat to eat. In addition, the output of salt was not as much as the Captains had hoped. By February, only one bushel had been produced. Lewis wrote anxiously, “with the means we have of boiling the salt water we find it a very tedious opperation, that of making salt, notwithstanding we keep the kettles boiling day and night. we calculate on three bushels lasting us from hence to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.”
The situation of the saltworks was proving to be both unhealthy and dangerous. On February 10, Lewis recorded that “Willard arrived late in the evening from the Saltworks, had cut his knee very badly with his tommahawk. he had killed four Elk not far from the Salt works the day before yesterday, which he had butched and took a part of the meat to camp, but having cut his knee was unable to be longer ucefull at the works and had returned. he informed us that Bratton was very unwell, and that Gibson was so sick that he could not set up or walk alone and had desired him to ask us to have him brought to the Fort.” The next morning the Captains sent a relief party to bring Gibson back to the fort, check on Bratton, and continue the salt-making operation.
On February 17, Lewis noted with some relief that “at 2 P. M. Joseph Fields arrived from the Salt works and informed us that they had about 2 Kegs of salt on hand which with what we have at this place we suppose will be sufficient to last us to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.” Lewis and Clark ordered the salt camp shut down. The 20 gallons of salt produced were secured in iron-bound kegs and set aside for the return voyage.
And finally a joke, courtesy of the great Lewis and Clark scholar Gary Moulton:
“Lewis and Clark only ever disagreed about three things: one liked dog, and the other didn’t. One liked salt, and the other didn’t. And one liked quiche, and the other didn’t.”